W. Kamau Bell talks on moving his Totally Biased show to FXX tonight and cooking with Paula Deen
It’s gotta be a bit like the Daily Show being on hiatus during the entire Republican presidential nomination process.
But avowedly progressive African American comic W. Kamau Bell, whose signature standup show once promised to end racism in about an hour, has seen his FX talk show Totally Biased on hiatus throughout the summer – sitting out the George Zimmerman verdict, the arguments over the senseless shooting of Australian baseball player Chris Lane, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and numerous knuckleheaded conservatives trying to tie crime statistics to black culture.
“Actually, I’ve been venting my frustrations on Twitter,” said Bell, who finally returns to TV on the new cable channel FXX with a weeknight version of Totally Biased hitting the air at 11 tonight. “People asked, ‘If Zimmerman gets acquitted, are you gonna call for riots in the streets?’ And I said, I’m a comedian; I’m gonna tell jokes and then I’m gonna call for riots in the streets.”
Born as a midweek latenight experiment on FX and executive produced by star comic Chris Rock, Totally Biased moves tonight to FXX, a new cable channel that is an experiment all its own – an attempt by FX to create a suite of cable channels all featuring content aimed at young male viewers, in the same way HBO and ESPN have their own array of channels. (Bell's show airs at 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday with a greatest-hits remix airing Fridays).
Hailed by FX as the “post-modern voice of late night television,” Bell and Totally Biased have taken on modern politics and pop culture with an urban, multicultural, decidedly left-of-center point of view, with news-based routines on everything from New York’s stop and frisk policies to a classic bit on the difference between members of the Sikh religion and Arab Sheiks.
To help promote the change, FX sent Bell and a rotation of his writers who also work as comics out on the road for a Totally Biased standup tour this summer which hit Orlando and other cities.
Just before that gig, I caught up with Bell to ask a few questions about the move to a new TV home. And the first question was whether he was nervous about moving his fledgling show to a channel no one had seen yet.
Bell: “No. If three years ago somebody had told me you’re gonna get a daily talk show on race on the cooking channel, I would have been, like, yay!”
Deggans: You and Paula Deen.
"The n-word lady? She’s so nice. The cooking will be excellent."
You could be the one place that will still have her on.
"Right…anyway, you know, I may sound like I’m being, you know, sort of a company man but I sorta feel like they gave me a chance when no one else would. I kinda felt that where you send me is where you send me. I will do the best I can where you send me and, you know, I think that the one thing they’re doing, I think they’re gonna do a lot to help viewers to watch. They’re certainly going to open up advertising to let people know where the show is, and they certainly don’t want that show getting a smaller audience, you know?”
What have you learned from the shows you’ve done so far?
“I think the things that worked, was the minute the show became more about not just my voice … the minute we started getting the voices of the other writers. I just think the show started feeling more like a universe instead of a guy yelling in a basement… I’m still learning … I still feel like I’m in Fox Show Host 101, you know? And I feel like I’m in the second half of the semester. You know, I would not put my skills as a host up against anybody, but I do feel like there’s a sense now when you watch the show, oh, it’s that guy. He’s doing that thing.”
I saw a quote from Chris Rock once who said he felt there are some fans who are too quick to like him because he’s black and talks a lot about race, and some fans who are quick to hate him for the same reason. Do you feel the same way?
“I feel like I do the show in a vacuum, like I’m just trying to put the best show on possible, and I sorta feel like if you’re not getting anything from either side, then I’m doing something wrong. (laughter) Like nothing makes me feel better than a good Brietbart.com article calling me, you know, insulting me. I go, okay, we’re getting to somebody And certainly I can feel bad sometimes when black people are like, 'I don’t dig the show,' but I feel like, well, that’s part of the thing...this has been my whole life, black people thinking I’m not doing something right, you know?...I tend to believe if there’s not conversation happening, then the show’s not actually being totally biased. And I feel like the one thing that the show got better on as we moved on was actually claiming its place for being totally black… To me, that’s a whole thing that I like in my comedy act, is I feel like I force people to make choices.”
So if you were on the air during the George Zimmerman trial, what would you have said?
“You know, the Zimmerman trial and the Paula Deen thing happening at the same time; black people are very excited to talk about both things and I feel like we’re in some dangerous waters, creating a false equivalency. She said “n-----” 20 years ago. He killed a kid. We’re angry about both? It’s like we need to sort of figure a balance.”
What I think these things both have in common, though, is black people pointing out how prejudice and racism crops up in places people want to shrug off.
“I’ve seen some white people say ‘George Zimmerman’s (action) I don’t think it was racist.’ And I sorta go, ‘Hey, white people, that’s not your job. Whether or not something is or isn’t racist is not in your purview….I’m not saying white people can’t see racism. I’m just saying they can’t be the last word. Because over the years, they’ve been a pretty crappy last word.”
Seems kinda like going to Putin and saying, 'What do you think about the NSA spying thing?'
“(Imitating Putin) ‘I see no problem with it.’ Oh, okay, thanks. Well, okay. If you don’t care …”
Thanks, Mr. Totalitarian Leader.
“That might fall out of my mouth in Orlando.”